At the paper where I just started working, it’s something of an intern initiatory rite to cover high school graduations. And on any given night this past week or in the weeks to come, there will be at least a half-dozen graduations in the city.
I’ve heard plenty of graduation speeches in the past few days — from principals, teachers, valedictorians, guest speakers. They all bleed into the same anodyne sermonizing, more or less: Try hard, don’t look back, rebound from failure, pursue your dreams at all costs.
I remember being that graduate with eyes glazed over, stupefied by the redundancy of what was being told to me. I remember how trite it sounded, hearing adults wring out what little meaning remained in those shriveled words like failure, effort, dream.
But four years later, I know that those words are not meaningless, and those trite, unimaginative and worn-out phrases carry a great and deadly meaning that reveals itself only as life wears on.
It’s difficult to beat back the gag reflex when we’re told to “try, try again!” But today, I’d make a choice my high school graduate self, sitting in those grandstands I’m now describing in the newspaper, would not have made, would not have been able to make.
I’d choose the corny exhortation over the cynical scoff; I’d choose to believe, somewhat naively perhaps, that effort does matter, rather than maintaining an air of world-weary indifference.
Cynicism, indifference, jadedness — it seems sexy and elegant and impressive. But there is nothing very sexy or elegant or impressive about abstaining from the fray of effort and failure. There is nothing impressive about scoffing from the sidelines as life passes you by.
We live in a world where clichés are both intolerable and inescapable. Even prefacing a cliché with, “I know it’s cliché, but . . .” has become a cliché.
Expressing emotion is cliché. Giving advice is cliché. Being candid is cliché. And it is strange that we would discount the heirlooms of centuries of communal storytelling — timeless lessons found in our holy books and fables and mythologies — simply because we have not found new ways of saying what others before us learned and passed down to us.
Just because I have yet to find a new way of saying, “Every end is also a new beginning,” doesn’t make it untrue. That was a platitude leveled at us at my own high school graduation, but it’s true. It is undeniably true. And it’s helped me through many a failure in the past four years.
At the heart of every cliché is a truth that has weathered the test of time; a saying is only cliché because we have heard it so many times, and we have only heard it so many times because it means something to so many people. And that, I think, is no reason for cynicism.
Matthew Ormseth is a graduate of Cornell University. He is a Yonsei, a hapa, a Millennial and a journalist.